Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter
Trudy Gildea never intended to end up in the Deep South. Never meant to stay a day longer than she had to after her husband, Ray, took a job 53 years ago at what is now Mississippi University for Women. But life has a funny way sometimes of putting us where we’re needed.
The classically-trained violinist was uprooted from New York’s vibrant arts world in 1962 and landed in Columbus. The National Guard was on the university steps in Oxford, where chaos was making headlines nationwide. Anxious friends from back home were calling, concerned for her safety.
“I was 32 when I moved here, and I was very depressed,” Gildea admits. “But I decided I could be miserable, or I could do something.”
That something was to share her passion for the violin, for beautiful music and for introducing children to it early in life. The Cornell University alumna began giving lessons in her home, but she is best known as the founder and fierce champion of the Suzuki Strings Program. The method teaches pre-school children to play violin, on instruments scaled to their small stature. Scores of area musicians blossomed in it, many notably going on to perform professionally.
Coming from a public school system that offered orchestral instruments from fourth grade on, Gildea was horrified to find Mississippi schools virtually tone deaf. (“You can’t have music one day a week and think you have a music program,” she says, “any more than you can teach Spanish one day a week and think you have a language program.”) She had been a member of her elementary school orchestra. “And my high school orchestra produced a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta every year,” says the doyenne at Twelve Gables, her antebellum home on the National Register of Historic Places.
In a pastel-pretty music room, she’s in her element, surrounded by sheet music and stands, a baby grand piano in one corner, a cello in another.
Her face takes on almost elfin appeal as she tells of growing up with four siblings in a house of music. Her mother, who left school in 10th grade to work for a railroad lantern manufacturer and help her brothers go to college, played mandolin and piano. Her father, a civil engineer who loved sports and designed stadiums, played guitar. She lost him to Hodgkin’s Disease in 1932, before she was 3-years-old.
“Everyone in my family played, and mother had a beautiful voice,” Gildea says. “She was a most amazing woman.”
As she matured, Gildea’s love of her art intensified. She recalls a revelatory outing with her high school music teacher.
“She took me to Carnegie Hall to hear Fritz Kreisler … I had never heard a violin sound like that!”
Gildea’s dedication prompted her mother to arrange for private lessons at The Julliard School.
“Julliard is hard. I remember how scared I was at first,” she recounts. “I knew how badly my mother wanted it for me, but she never made me feel like, ‘Look at my big sacrifice.’”
Many years later, all the diligent training would be put to excellent use in Mississippi. Especially when Gildea marshaled forces to apply for a Mississippi Arts Commission grant through the Columbus Arts Council, to implement the Suzuki program.
“I look back now and wonder how I ever had the nerve to write to the Arts Commission,” she laughs. “But I remembered my mother’s determination.”
The program established in 1980 grew, thanks largely to the transplanted New Yorker’s talent, grit and powers of persuasion. She’s transferred the director’s reins to Diane Ford, but Gildea still does some teaching. The intervening years have been rich with interesting people met, children inspired and music experienced.
At 85, Gildea is the longest-tenured performer in the Starkville-MSU Symphony Orchestra. She often practices two or so hours a day to keep up, she says, with her younger counterparts. It isn’t always easy. “You make up your mind,” she says, growing thoughtful. “Either you’re going to play or you’re not going to play … it can be a hard question to ask yourself.”
The sultry Deep South, all in all, turned out to be fertile ground for this musician with a mission. On Gildea’s 80th birthday, Ford surprised her by having the youthful Suzuki orchestra perform “Happy Birthday.”
“I thought, ‘This is why you came here.’ It took all that time for me to realize it.”
Today, an elementary fine arts magnet school in Columbus offers violin, which gratifies Gildea. But there is still much to be done.
“What’s that poem about a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” she asks. “I would love to one day see it in every school, to see a high school orchestra. I really do think music is that important in children’s lives. No, I’m not satisfied yet. I’m still working on it — I have more to do.”